I guess most people have a phase during their teenage years that they aren’t too proud of. For me that is a phase when I was too much into motorbikes. How much you ask? Well, enough to sport a mullet and one of those jeans vests with patches on it. My view of what qualifies as a motorbike was also rather narrow minded. A bike had to be either a full blooded street racing or moto-cross machine. I also thought that the worst thing on two wheels were scooters. These little plastic covered machines with the tiny wheels that don’t handle or accelerate well. I hope that I have become a lot more tolerant since these days. However, I was still having a hard time convincing myself to rent a scooter in Southeast Asia. But it happened. Not once, but twice and I have to admit that I had fun both times.
It started when we were in Bagan, Myanmar. You can’t rent scooters in Bagan because the taxi lobby has managed to get them banned. But the locals found a way around this by renting out electrical bicycles. These aren’t electrical bicycles as they are used in many European and some American cities nowadays. They do have pedals but they are just electrical scooters in disguise. They are fast enough and have sufficient reach to get you around the whole Bagan area. They were also cheap to rent and gave us the freedom to explore the temples at our own pace. Best of all, they were called bicycles and not scooters. Therefore I didn’t have to admit to myself that I was renting a scooter quite yet.
I had a great time riding the little toy bike around and noticed a few days later that I had been in serious motorbike withdrawal. I had sold my last one about four years ago after having owned bikes for almost 20 years. As a consequence I was all for it when J suggested a couple of weeks later that we should rent a scooter and drive to the temple ruins of My Son about an hour away from Hoi An, Vietnam.
We got a relatively new Yamaha scooter with enough power to carry the two of us comfortably. The deal is always the same in Vietnam. You get the scooter almost empty and hope that you’ll make it to the first gas station. I had heard that it is more reliable for tourist to buy the gas from the little stands next to the road where they sell it by the bottle. However, my experience was that the gas at the normal stations was significantly cheaper and nobody tried to charge me more than the meter showed. The traffic in Hoi An and the surrounding streets is not as busy and chaotic as in the big cities like Ho Chi Minh City. Nevertheless the driving style of the locals is creative to say the least. The only consistent traffic law is that whoever has more momentum has the right of way. If this question can’t be answered without a doubt it is discussed by honking at each other. But traffic is slow and people usually find a way around each other. The further away from the city I got the fewer trucks, buses, cars and scooters I had to deal with. Instead the number of bicycles, cows, buffalos, dogs, chickens and pigs on the road increased. But the same traffic rules seem also to apply here, i.e. watch out for cows and buffalos, everything else will move out of the way. I had a blast maneuvering the little scooter through this obstacle course. It reminded me a lot of my youth when I was riding 50cc bikes on the dirt roads around the town I grew up in.
On a second occasion we rented a scooter in Dong Hoi and drove to some of the caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Natinoal Park. The roads were in a better shape in this area of the country. This was very helpful because the scooter we had rented through the hostel was in a poor condition and needed more attention than the one we were on before. After a short drive I figured out that the order of the gears was backwards, similarly to a racing gear box. Needless to say this was the only racing gene that the little scooter had. I’m also still unsure where neutral was supposed to be. The breaks required a bit of foresighted driving and the speedometer was constantly bouncing over a wide range of velocities. But it was nice to have some kind of motion inside the instrument panel since all the other parts were broken too. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to be on the road and steer the scooter out of the town and towards the hills in which the caves are hidden.
But even more important than the fun and independence of driving around ourselves was, that we got to go off the beaten tourist path and got to see a glimpse of what life is like in the Vietnamese country side. Water buffalos were pulling carts along the road and plows through the muddy fields. Kids were playing next to the road and running up to us for ‘high-fives’. At one point we got into what seemed to be the going home rush hour. The little two lane street was filled with bicycles. They were all going in the same direction. It seemed like one big stream of bicycles with people riding in clusters of two to five bikes. They were riding next to each other, talking and joking along the way. Scooters were negotiating their way through the bicycles but every now and then a loud honking car or truck would come by and most of the bicycles would end up riding into the ditch next to the road. It seems chaotic and dangerous from the outside but people are aware of each other and somehow make it work.
I’ve never owned a motorbike that was suited for travelling on. For the few short trips I did on my bikes I usually crammed my toothbrush and a set of underwear underneath the seat and called it good. However, these two excursions have sparked my interest and I can imagine doing a longer motorbike trip in the future, e.g. in South America.
“You kiss me?” I looked around the festival we were walking through only to have my eyes land on a group of monks. To my astonishment one of them said, again, “you kiss me?” I started laughing as his buddies kept him walking past us.
We had been in Myanmar for less than three hours and already my time in this country had surprised me and made me giggle on numerous occasions. Shortly after walking out of the airport we found ourselves in a taxi on the way into the city. The driver sat on the right side of the car, and M noted out loud that they were also driving on the right side of the road. Shortly later we realized that there were cars with the steering wheel on the right, but also several with the steering wheel on the left! As it turns out, they used to drive on the left hand side of the road, but recently this had changed, and of course the cars hadn’t quite caught up with the change!
As it turns out, the timing of our trip into Myanmar was impeccable. We arrived on the evening prior to the second largest festivities of the year and it turned out that there was a large festival going on within walking distance of the hostel. We quickly set out to find dinner and to tour the festivities. In many ways the “market” resembled fairgrounds with a small Ferris wheel and assorted games with food and drinks everywhere.
While walking through the crowds of people I was surprised to notice that the monks were wearing maroon colored robes as opposed to the orange robes we had seen in all of the other Southeast Asian countries. We saw groups of monks playing carnival games; kicking balls towards goals, throwing rings onto cans of beers and generally participating like everyone else around us. And food! Of course, there was food everywhere we looked! We watched as several people juiced sugar cane by pushing the sugar cane through these machines so quickly that I was shocked they didn’t accidentally push their own hands through the press.
We wandered through the chaotic and overflowing streets and into the crowded pagoda, people-watching and trying to take in everything that surrounded us.
Prior to arriving in Myanmar, I’d read a bit about the country. I’d read that I should expect that life didn’t work in quite the same, predictable way as it did back home. Even while reading about backwards-moving clocks and beetle-nut-destroyed-teeth, I didn’t expect the embodiment of these passages to leave the impact on me that they did.
To be clear, my amazement, surprise and confusion didn’t just revolve around monks. However, most of the impressions that stuck with me are difficult to put into words. We saw people sleeping in eccentric places such as the luggage compartments of buses or relaxing on plastic road dividers.
We saw recycling being sorted, in the middle of a busy street.
We saw mothers taking care of their children, just as they would anywhere else.
We saw live chickens carried home on the train.
And that was just in Yangon! By the time we got to Inle Lake a couple days later we were already overwhelmed with impressions! We had no idea what we were in for, during that particular festival…
Besides floating floats, we saw floating gardens in Inle Lake, exemplifying the original version of the recently-trendy aquaponics movement.
During our bus ride through the hills of Myanmar from Inle to Bagan we saw our bus being manually cooled down.
We saw pagoda after pagoda and then some more pagodas, especially in Bagan.
While these are just snapshots of our time in the country, my mind is equally filled with our direct interactions with the locals. We had countless people take our picture and ask us to pose with them in pictures. That picture of the monk and I? A picture at his request! I couldn’t tell you which one of us was more giggly and happy about it! Children would run up to me and grab my hand. We had monks encircle us on their mission to interact with foreigners and practice English. These are the moments that I love about traveling. The all-consuming nature of this constant state of confusion, surprise and wonder as we look around a country filled with the everything you would expect, but in a distinctly unfamiliar way. And yet, even in a place where nothing is “normal,” there are people. And people are always people, often curious, and mostly friendly. Exactly like the little boy in a group of kids in the bed of a pick-up truck who yelled out “Hello! What is your name?” before continuing on and telling us his name before we could even reply. When we did respond, he grinned widely, his friends giggling by his side as the truck drove away and out of sight.